1998, NR, 98 min. Directed by Matthew Diamond.
REVIEWED By Sarah Hepola, Fri., April 16, 1999
At once a testimony to the necessity of modern dance and a love letter to the men and women who make it, Diamond's absorbing documentary about choreographer Paul Taylor is, most importantly, an intricate and delicately hued portrait of the artist as an old man. Following the Paul Taylor Dance Company on a month-long tour of India and back to New York, Diamond's film gains a rare glimpse into the dancers' decidedly unglamorous lot of bruised knees, cracked feet, and smoke breaks, as well as the inevitable financial crunch felt by even the country's most influential modern dance groups. But what the Academy Award-nominated film captures best is Taylor himself, from his uprooted youth as a foster child to the heights of success as an artist Newsweek once called “the greatest living choreographer.” As a member of pioneering choreographer Martha Graham's dance troupe, Taylor began his rise to fame as a sad-eyed, muscular bean pole whose elegant, fluid movements seemed to drip from the long arcs of his hands and legs. These days, the choreographer is all warm, goofy smile and droopy face, and while age seems to have mellowed the verbal lashings and outrageous tests of devotion he unleashed on his first dance troupe (Taylor once fired them, one at a time, when they wouldn't cancel their Christmas plans; he later recanted), his mild manner belies a fierce perfectionist, an implacable papa who keeps his children literally bending over backward to please him. A former dancer himself, director Diamond portrays the troupe as a family -- albeit a dysfunctional one, and to illustrate this relationship, he enlists the testimony of many current and former dance troupe members, who endure the constant criticism, the exhaustion, and the self-doubt for the roar of the crowd as well as the chance to work with the living legend they both revere and fear. We also gain insight into the tenderhearted artist beneath Taylor's flippant exterior, like when his jaw quivers for a sliver of a second recalling the promise of a beautiful male dancer, only one of many troupe members lost to AIDS. The most fascinating part of Diamond's documentary, though, is the intuitive process Taylor uses to create his masterworks. Although referred to by many as a collaboration, it is decidedly not. Or, rather, it is the same kind of collaboration Rembrandt shared with his paint. In fact, one dancer comes closest to describing the process when he refers to how “Paul makes a dance on you.” Like an artist on canvas, Taylor dabbles with his nervous, eager-to-please dancers as if they were walking, breathing colors. He takes hours moving their arms and legs, sometimes silently ruminating for painful minutes as he searches for the inspiration that will get everything rolling. Diamond films these scenes -- indeed, all rehearsal scenes -- in a grainy black and white, leeching the process of its color so that when he cuts from rehearsal to performance the vibrancy of the final product -- dance, costumes, music, romance -- seems to explode. Unlike all those meager narrative films about the art, which seem elaborate excuses to film gorgeous people strutting their stuff, this documentary digs deep, sure to strike poignant chords of recognition for dancers themselves, but for the rest of us -- a remarkable invitation to the dance.